During its successful run at last year’s New York Fringe Festival, “Walmartopia” was a musical you could root for. The writers and most of the cast were Wisconsinites making their Gotham debuts; their obvious joy at being on a New York stage made it easy to focus on the show’s potential instead of its frequent, amateurish lapses. But now that this hammy satire, about a Wal-Mart employee sucked into a future where her corporation rules the world, has returned for a commercial Off Broadway run, excuses are harder to make.
For one thing, despite copious rewrites, co-writers and composers Catherine Capellaro and Andrew Rohn have penned two acts’ worth of setup with minimal payoff.
Cribbing liberally from “Nickel and Dimed,” Barbara Ehrenreich’s chilling nonfiction account of minimum-wage slavery, they use the first act to prove that working for Wal-Mart sucks. Most characters are defined in terms of their hardship, like Miguel (Bradley Dean), the janitor who gets locked in the store overnight, and Vicki (Cheryl Freeman), the mother whose meager salary forces her and daughter Maia (Nikki M. James) to live in a hotel.
To their credit, the scribes cleverly deliver their horrifying statistics. When Wal-Mart honchos crow about exploiting their workforce, they do it in a peppy number called “March of the Executives,” which remains blithe fun even as it delivers hard facts. And Vicki almost becomes a heroine when she storms the discount chain’s headquarters demanding better treatment.
But just when it’s time for characters to act, mad Wal-Mart scientist Dr. Normal (Stephen DeRosa) sends Vicki and Maia to the world of 2037, where the reanimated head of Sam Walton (Scotty Watson) oversees everything from education to health care. The story’s momentum dies as the writers are forced to explain an entirely new society.
Meanwhile, Cheryl tediously repeats her arc from act one, moving again from fear to insurrection. By the time she’s ready to rebel a second time, the show is almost over, and the resolution gets stuffed into a single song. No wonder the concluding argument — basically, “Don’t forget to dream” — is so shallow.
The sweet-natured Fringe production proved that a gentle touch could mitigate these problems, but director Daniel Goldstein opts for crude slapstick instead. Pleading for laughs, he pushes the cast toward double takes and “funny” character voices that grate by the end of the opening number.
Choices made for Dr. Normal are particularly obnoxious. Nothing in the script suggests the scientist should be a prancing homosexual, yet he flames like a blowtorch. We see a signed picture of Liza Minnelli in his laboratory, and DeRosa contorts every moment into sexual innuendo.
Presumably, auds itching to see a gay minstrel show will be entertained.
At least Dean and James manage unforced perfs, with the latter giving Maia a fiery intelligence. Freeman doesn’t overact so much as she doesn’t act at all. Even in her power ballad about wanting to be a better mother, she remains blankly detached, as though she’s thinking about other things while she stands onstage. At the perf reviewed, she also fumbled about a dozen lines and frequently called characters by the wrong names.
How ironic that a professional thesp does so little with a role that Anna Jayne Marquardt, who played Vicki in the Fringe staging, made so endearing. Last summer, her empathetic perf was a sign that “Walmartopia” could evolve into a better show. Now it’s just a reminder of what has gone wrong since.